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Larry Stirling
Larry Stirling is a former State Senator and Retired Superior Court Judge

Where were the tankers this time?
The new San Diego Fire Chief got caught with his red suspenders down....
[Larry Stirling] 11/7/03

It cant be a great feeling to be brought in from out of town and then be left holding the bag when the biggest fire in history roars through, and your troops can't stop it.

The chief got really testy when KOGO's veteran reporter, Wade Douglas, asked him about the lack of available resources.

The chief threw a tantrum and blamed the taxpayers for not providing enough firefighters.

Gov. Gray Davis pulled the same stunt. He said fighting forest fires was the purpose of the tripling of the vehicle tax.

Both guys are full of it.

Veteran San Diegans remember the Normal Heights fire in which some nut dropped fire along Interstate 8 across from the stadium so that half the Charger fans could watch while substantial portions of the neighborhood burned down.

The San Diego Fire Department had called the California Division of Forestry in a timely manner and asked for air tankers to bomb the brush fire along the freeway shoulder.

"All of our tankers are busy." was the response.

Well, as Bill Clinton would say, it depends on what the definition of "our" is.

It turned out that sitting on the runway at the California Air National Guard (CANG) section of the Van Nuys airport were C-130 aircraft with the Mobile Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) inserts already installed and the retardant mixing tank nearby at the ready. I saw them there myself.

Were they called? No!

And why weren't they called? For exactly the same reason that the same CANG tankers that, this time, were sitting on the ground at the Channel Island CANG Base were not called until it was too late: the state is incompetent.

Here is how it is supposed to work: The local fire department is to accurately assess the risk of any fire. Then that agency is to call the county mutual aid people for back up. If that is not enough, the county mutual aid guy is supposed to call the regional mutual aide guy and if that is not enough, that guy calls the CDF.

And if that is not enough, then the CDF is supposed to call the State Office of Emergency Services (OES); and if that is not enough, then the OES is supposed to call the State Office of Homeland Security (SOHS). And if that is not enough, the SOHS is supposed to call the governor. And then the governor is supposed to start all over again with the Federal government.

In the meantime, the county burns down.

The chief should be testy but not because we did not give him enough taxes. There were plenty of resources to be had; there just was not enough leadership on his part to get them.

The taxpayers have already paid for the CANG tankers many times over. The taxpayers also already paid for county units that had been sent out of town and "could not be retrieved."

It is the nature of fires that you have to pounce on them with all the resources necessary to snuff it out at the start.

The start of this particular fire was reported to be the evening of Saturday, Oct. 25, between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.

The CANG C-130s, those devastating 3,000-gallon tankers, which could have saved so many lives and houses, did not start flying until Monday.

I don't think it is any accident that they did not fly until Davis had an emergency declaration from George Bush in hand. That declaration shifted the cost of all such operations to the federal government.

The government is the only organization rewarded for its failures. The Fire chief, and all of his like-minded managers, have already blamed the people for refusing to pay more taxes.

They will now excuse themselves from a gigantic management failure and go right back to business as usual, staff politics, until the next fire.

Davis blamed Bush for the fact that the governor did not call out his very own CANG C-130 air tankers until it was too late.

There is more to the story than I can cover in one column.

Certainly this disaster cannot be laid that the feet of the thousands of men and women that fought the fire.

But the disaster can be laid squarely in the lap of the lengthy and incompetent disaster response "chain of command" that is in place.

The true indictment of the government is that in the minds of the government officers, "solutions dilute power."

Big problems mean big budgets. Solutions mean oblivion.

We are not well served by the current system, and the grand jury should investigate and say so.

copyright 2003 Larry Stirling


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